Nordpolen Journal: 6/14/13- Stabbur-Makrell, Jackdaws, and Wagtails

Nordpolen Journal: 6/14/13- Stabbur-Makrell, Jackdaws, and Wagtails

Oslo, Norway
June 14, 2013

I’ve got an hour until my shuttle back to the airport for the final leg to Svalbard, and I have internet access… so guess what? A small  blip from Norway!


I was greeted at the Gardermoen Airport by rain and what I thought were crows, but I’ve now identified as Jackdaws. These guys are about 2/3 the size of American Crows, but have the same body language of curiosity… perhaps with a little less swagger. I made friends with one who looked exactly like this by tossing him/her a yogurt-covered almond.

Norway is beautiful, even right next to the airport. It is swaths of green with small two-lane highways. I arrived exhausted at 11:00am local time, which was 2:00am for me. I tried to sleep on the plane, but I find it difficult to sleep on the plane… too much unpredictable noise. I did watch The Hobbit, which put me in an adventuring state of mind, though I think I’ll skip the singing.

My motel, (which is frankly more like a hostel), is passable. It’s warm, and relatively clean… but there is nothing to eat, and I mean nothing. Well, okay, there are chips and soda, which is what I ate for dinner. There is nothing within walking distance… no restaurants, no grocery stores, no bars…. there was a beautiful trail though through the Kulturpark, which is where I found my first geocache in Norway on the bottom of a WWII tank parked on the grass. This whole area was a military base during WWII and apparently so much airline activity was directed here, it was eventually converted into a commercial airport.

The path was beautiful, and I decided to go looking for another geocache about 8/10 ths of a mile away. I got within 14 feet of it, according to my gps, but didn’t find the damned thing, despite wading around in wet grass and getting stuck in the rain. I was wearing my deck shoes for the trip, which still aren’t dry. Duh. Duh. Duh. But seriously, you can’t just give up within 14 feet of a cache… though I finally did after an hour of fruitless searching.


I did meet another kind of bird… it looks like a sparrow, built higher off the ground, with a white bandit mask. It pumps its tail up and down whenever it comes to a halt. It turns out to be an aptly-named “White Wagtail.”

I also discovered some odd little abandoned cabins, with busted-out windows and trees growing so thick around their front doors that only animals would be able to knock. They did have plastic keyholders– the kind with a code like real estate agents use– on the front. I’m guessing they used to be rented out. I was poking around one and thought I heard music coming from inside so I took off. It would be a remote place for a squat, but I’m a stranger here and therefore prefer caution.


I made it til 6:30pm local time and finally gave in, took an Ambien, and went to bed. Can I just say that I already have strange dreams as it is, but Ambien is like taking a hallucinogen. I slept really really well, but oh my god the dreams. The first one involved a roll-away bed with a dead body rolled up inside it. The second was about some reality-tv type game I was in that somehow involved exploring unfamiliar places and taking photos of the other players without being seen. I woke up promptly 8 hours later, and then made myself keep going back to sleep until 6am.

I have been writing a lot by hand in a journal. And in terms of the effect of this experience on creative process, I already have noticed quite a few things, but I won’t have time to transcribe any of it until I get back. For now, I offer just a little glimpse of the surfaces.

Breakfast, by the way, was…. interesting. A vegan would lose a lot of weight. A vegan who is gluten intolerant would starve to death.

I did, however, get plenty of coffee, which is my manna… and I picked up this souvenir for some lucky friend to spread on toast!



Nordpolen Journal: 6/11/13- a dream before setting off for points unknown

Nordpolen Journal: 6/11/13- a dream before setting off for points unknown

San Francisco, CA
June 11, 2013

Tomorrow’s the day.

At 5:30 am I’ll get up in San Francisco and drink enough coffee to make me amenable to being awake, and then I’ll take a bus to a plane to a plane to a shuttle to a shuttle to a plane to a barquentine. It will be two days later and I’ll be North of most of the world.

I have a lot of feelings today: above all, excitement… beneath that a few small worries… will there be enough coffee? Will my digestion get screwed up? Will I be sore from sitting too long? But those small worries are small.

Beneath those concerns is a vast, dark current of hope and sadness. The sadness is strange. The sadness is a voice that says, this could have been your whole life but it’s only three weeks… and the sadness says… is it worse to set off on a journey you know will wake you up, only to have to return to lethargy and sameness? The voice also says… there is so much you haven’t done and will never do.

I wonder about these voices and their insistence on preparing me for disappointment: the disappointments of a short lifespan, of the necessity to waste time, of all the lost stories that spoke and died in me, but never made it any further than an intention.

I had a dream last night: I was walking on a tour through a neighborhood I didn’t recognize. I walked with a group of people I didn’t know up the sidewalk on the right-hand side of a steep street which ran between two high cliffs. The guide was pointing out the dwellings built into the cliffsides. They were tall, with the facades of the narrow, stately Victorians I am used to here in San Francisco, but they were somehow carved out of massive trees that were wedged partway into the rock. I have drawn a terrible sketch with my terrible drawing abilities to show what I mean:


It was twilight when we were walking, and there was a hush over the group. I asked if we could go inside these houses, but the guide said “No one goes inside those dwellings. No one lives there.”

As he said this, I saw the curtains being drawn back from a window in one of the houses in an upper storey, and I knew someone was looking down from the window at me, but it was dark inside so I couldn’t see them. It was getting darker outside, and I found that the tour group had moved on without me, and I was just standing on the broken sidewalk, looking up at the houses.

A door opened in the house closest to me, and a shape came down the sidewalk. I couldn’t really “see” the shape, though it felt like a person, and I knew it was, for lack of a better word, a ghost. This being moved toward me… and I remember that some communication passed between us. We spoke, but we didn’t speak. It’s the way you know things in dreams… you speak, but not necessarily the way you do in the waking world.

And then the being swept back up the sidewalk, back up toward the house. As it passed back inside, it broke apart like a transparent fog, the particles of it seeming more like simply an existing part of the landscape that had momentarily rearranged, and were now flying back apart into the grass, the rocks, the darkness again.

And I suddenly felt, like you feel a thunderstorm approaching, or like you feel the hum of bees where you’re near a bush full of flowers… I felt that all those forsaken houses…. they were full of beings like the one who had stepped out and momentarily formed in order to speak with me. Not only that, but the houses were full of histories, full of hidden passages, full of doors leading to even more interesting places, and that I was not afraid to go in, though it would still take some courage to do so.

I like to not interpret dreams, and just let them work how they work best- like paintings and photographs and symphonies- images with emotional, non-verbal content. But in this case, I’d like to say that it’s not unusual for me to dream about talking to the dead. And these dreams are always transformative, in the sense that my inner world is now getting ready to travel with my body to places unknown.

It seems like a great way to set off for an adventure that I truly hope will give me a chance to get my internal world and my external world back into a kind of synchrony. I once said that a writer who is not writing is like a haunted house… and that is what I have been feeling like lately. Perhaps now I go by that ghost’s example, and re-shape the part of me that creates and communicates out of those little shimmering bits of my surroundings…


Nordpolen Journal: 6/6/13- romanticizing the artist who suffers

Nordpolen Journal: 6/6/13- romanticizing the artist who suffers

San Francisco, CA
June 6, 2013

Pablo Picasso, Massacre in KoreaI used to romanticize a lot of things: suffering, honor, polar bears.  But strangely, I always hated canned sentiment, the kind Hallmark cards are notorious for, or the kind that happens when you are watching a movie and suddenly the music swells and you know you are being told to feel sad and sympathetic.

I’ve never liked being told what to feel or what to think, but I didn’t realize until recently that sometimes what I think and feel is influenced by subtleties, undercurrents, and even the fact of my limited lifespan. After all, how many things can I pay attention to and notice every day if I’m trying to walk down the street listening to a podcast while checking my email and drinking coffee? If, barring accidents and opportunistic maladies, I only live about 80 years… that’s just not enough time to observe life. It’s hardly enough time to read even a fraction of the good books out there, let alone watch all the movies, travel around, think, see, learn. If you keep learning, which I try to do, do you reach a point at which you just have to hit the “cancel/clear” button and wipe some memory so you can make some room for more? I have a pet theory that this what death is for. If we lived any longer we’d all be starkers.

But I’ve strayed from what I’m after… which is the idea of romanticizing personal struggle, and how that makes me want to smack someone with a flyswatter.

In high school, I “qualified” for the advanced literature class. I was so excited and proud. Then I spent a year reading Dostoyevsky, Plath, Turgenev, Sartre… basically every depressed non-American writer that my English teacher could get her hands on. Naturally, I also gravitated to new wave music, so while waiting for Godot, I listened to The Cure, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Talk about a perfect storm… I was a depressive personality to begin with… and here we were reading the most persuasive and lyrical voices of the 20th century arguing for the ultimate alienation and negation of self. If these people, who could make such beauty from suffering, ultimately gave up and offed themselves… well hell… what is the point?

The point is, somewhere along the line, I was fully indoctrinated into the belief that pain and suffering are synonymous with good writing. And frankly, good writing and good art is satisfying because of pain. It isn’t beauty that we respond to really, it’s how painfully beautiful something is. Even humor has an element of pain to it… things that are truly funny have a wry or bitter turn, or set off a sympathetic expansion feeling in the head/heart/gut that is a kind of ouch, in a way, an ouch that makes a burst of laughter in recognizing shared frailty.

Things that do not contain even a kind of homeopathic ghostly reference to pain are really not that compelling. When a child says something unwittingly funny, I would hazard that it is funny because an adult “knows better” or sees it from a more tired perspective… this is also a kind of pain.

Fluffy puppies and kittens of course are not painful at all, which is why they are lovely to look at and play with, but are not art.

Did you see that, what I just did there? I called something art… well, I called something (not) art. The point I’m edging my way toward, or clumsily ham-fisting my way into submission is this: struggle and suffering are often the subjects of good writing and good art because that’s what artists do– they take the things that suck and try to show why they do not suck, or perhaps make them not suck as much by depicting them in a way that is, itself, beautiful.

It is the reaction of people to pain and difficulty that either creates or destroys beauty.

So what I’m saying is, don’t romanticize this act. It isn’t the writer or the artist that we should focus on, eating ramen or tapping on pipes in a gulag to communicate with other imprisoned writers. Focus instead on the thing that put them there.

The drive to create something worthwhile out of pain and confusion and the transient and often unfair nature of life should never be romanticized, because then it becomes tame, controllable, distanced, and unreal. We’ve got to stay close to these things.

Nordpolen Journal: 6/1/13- postcards to influential strangers 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19… and an answer!

Nordpolen Journal: 6/1/13- postcards to influential strangers 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19… and an answer!

San Francisco, California
June 1, 2013

Please forgive my tardiness with posts,  but I’ve been busy. I tend to make my projects complicated. It all started way back when I first used to decorate white shoeboxes with felt tip pens… every inch of space on the box HAD to be covered… and not just in a color, but with drawings, and each one detailed. When I was 12 I set out to color in the entire D&D monster manual, one monster at a time. I made it up to the letter D. I still have it…. maybe someday I will finish it. So this project, to write postcards to all 15 of my creative influences***… well it might have gone the way of many of my projects and about 6/8 ths of the way in I would have lost interest and moved on to something else… all the while thinking I’d come back to the thing I’d started and finish it.  But today I sat down and completed all 15 so that I can, with a clear conscience, move on.

A couple of things happened during the last few days that have made this project really worthwhile: the first is that I discovered that there is a difference between an idea and its execution, and that difference is the work. It’s easy to have ideas, and it takes another kind of energy to carry them through. The interesting part to me is that when I sat down to write each of these postcards, I had no idea really what I was going to say. I also had a restrictive space in which to write it.  For those people on my list who are dead, I found my mind freed up in a certain way to write what I wanted, without fear of presumption or judgment, which made those cards easier to write, and of course more about myself than about the person I was writing to. In a way, most communication is like that… since you can’t get inside another person’s head, you have to take an educated guess at what makes them tick. Those parallels you draw between yourself and another person’s experience is the heart of empathy… and empathy is a tool a lot like bats using echolocation… you blindly bounce your own voice off what’s around you and try to get an idea of what’s there by listening to what comes back. What you receive is your own perceptions rearranged by the other person’s shape. It’s sometimes uncannily accurate, and sometimes misses the target entirely.

When you get writers and musicians in your echolocative beam, something even stranger happens: you can, in a way, get inside their heads. But you get into the part of their heads that they broadcast, that they set free into the world. And we all know that the things we put out into the world are both deep expressions of ourselves, and shallow ones… they represent only fractions of the whole human being, and ephemeral moments. This is why the written word, or the recorded word, is so powerful… unlike the ephemeral nature of me whispering to you in person, where my thoughts are free to bloom and dissipate, and my mind is allowed to change and grow and reconsider, we treat things that are written down as authoritative, as unchanging, as evidence of our emotional triumphs and crimes.

What people forget about what is written down, and what is recorded and duplicated again and again, is that it is dead. Like a person who has passed away, it is no longer a viable, unstable thing in and of itself… its self has been abdicated for interpretation. Things that are written/recorded belong to everyone, whether the person responsible likes it or not, because whatever happens to it, once it becomes static, once it cannot shift with the shifting nature of reality,  it becomes subject to debate, theft, reinterpretation, repurposing, recycling, mimicry, defamation, censorship… the property of everyone and the possession of no one.

So in writing these postcards, I thought about the person on the other end and fought through the desire to censor myself almost before I even began… because I know that the person I am writing to, whom I’ve never met, is not “knowable” through their work alone. What I am writing to, really, is myself… even though in my heart of hearts I am reaching out to make contact with the facet of the person on the other end that brought some part of myself to the surface. All I could really do was keep in my mind the ultimate purpose… to send a brief note of thanks to a person I felt deeply affected by… to let them know that I, too, am a blind bat chasing moths by the sound of their fluttering.

I think I might keep going with this… not here on the blog, but on my own. There is something about sending these things out into the world, without the need for anything in return, that feels right… it is so unlike what we’re trained to do all day every day, which is to do things just to get something we need to have in order to survive.

And that leads me to the second thing that happened this week: one of my influential strangers (#5) wrote back! Marvin Kaye, now the editor of Weird Tales, sent me two free copies of the magazine, and a thank you note of his own. This was an unexpected kindness, and a kind of ping back from the void, which turns out to still be able to deliver illegible postcards!  (Scroll to the bottom to see Mr. Kaye’s answer.)

And here are the rest of the postcards from the project:

***and I just realized that I can’t count. There are 19 .

10. Neil Gaiman:

Neil Gaiman-front

Neil Gaiman

11. Susanna Clarke:

Susanna Clarke

Susanne Clarke

12. Virtual Boy:

Virtual Boy

Virtual Boy

13. Camille Flammarion:

Camille Flammarion

Camille Flammarion

14. Robert Smith:

Robert Smith

Robert Smith

15. Charles Fort:

Charles Fort

Charles Fort

16. Rod Serling:

Rod Serling

Rod Serling

17. Tim Burton:

Tim Burton

Tim Burton

18. Peter Murphy:

Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy

19. William Butler Yeats:

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

And to me from Marvin Kaye….